Three teachers are tackling a tricky problem. We have been asked to work out why the Nazis came to power in Germany after the First World War. But maths, science and technology are the subjects we teach, so a brief exchange of baffled looks conveys the unmissable message: "You've got to be kidding."
The sheet of notes we have been given at the workshop at North Lanarkshire's co-operative learning conference is not helping any. The words seem to be in English, and some of the sentences make isolated sense, but the passage as a whole conveys virtually nothing.
The pressure is making our task even more difficult, because each of us knows we have to extract the essentials from this text - "Weakness of Weimar" - and explain it very soon to another group.
This is not co-operative learning. It's shared panic. The blank minds and rapidly growing anxiety must be a regular experience for struggling pupils in all our classes. It's a valuable lesson in itself. But what happens next is even more so.
Mark Jones, the faculty head of social subjects at Tain Royal Academy, who is running the workshop, gives the tables of teachers around the room just enough time to appreciate the magnitude of their tasks. Then he explains how to break them into manageable chunks.
"Number yourselves, from one to how many people are at your table. Number the paragraphs in the text in the same way. Read the paragraphs that have your number, and decide on one sentence you think summarises each of them. Discuss each paragraph in turn and agree as a group on the summary sentences."
Suddenly the pressure is off. Instead of a whole page to make sense of, each person is responsible for just two paragraphs, and even then the final decision is taken by the group. The job is still demanding, since the text is full of unfamiliar ideas, but it looks possible now.
And it is. As the analysis proceeds, initial thoughts are sometimes reinforced by colleagues, sometimes gently challenged. The latter feels less like making a mistake and more like getting a chance to rethink, which strengthens our understanding.
That is just the beginning of the learning - and the co-operation. Weimar's weakness was only one factor in the rise of the Nazis. So different groups around the room have been using the same methods to investigate three others - the Treaty of Versailles, the economic crises, and how the Nazi political machine worked.
Now it's time for everyone to return to a home table of four participants - one for each of the factors researched. Co-operative learning, we're starting to realise, is like a complex formation dance in which partners come and swiftly go again, but something lingers from each of them.
"On the tablemat in front of you quickly write up your findings," Mr Jones tells the class. "Then take turns to explain the argument you have just researched.
"When you've done that, I want you to come to a conclusion about the main reason the Nazis came to power in 1933. Everyone in a group must agree. Write it in the centre space."
That sounds like the end, but it isn't quite. Each participant has yet to be exposed to insights generated around the room. So tablemats are stuck on the wall and careful choreography provides a new set of partners from every other table. Then we all stroll around the gallery, taking turns to explain the main message of our mats.
The dance ended, our partners thanked, what have we learnt in less than an hour? A remarkable amount on the reasons for the rise of the Nazis, and something even more important, particularly to social learning sceptics.
Co-operative learning differs from group discussion in two important respects. It is much more structured. And it works.
Learning structures used in this seminar
- value line
- name tag
- think, pair, share
- numbered heads
- looks likesounds like
- expert groups
- paired reading
- academic controversy
- 1 stay, 3 stray
- gallery walk
- group processing
Creating active classrooms for powerful learning. A conference on co-operative learning was run by North Lanarkshire in November.
Alison Cameron T 01236 812243.